Pandora’s Desk

24

[I wrote this a long time ago. Actually, it was one of the first short stories I had ever written and I did it off a three word prompt. I was just tuning my craft and I think this is terrible writing. The historical accuracy is highly questionable. I don’t remember what my source material was, but its definitely a bunch of hastily assembled gleanings of connections that probably never occurred. The three words were: Monkey, Desk, Decembrist]

My grandfather, Mikhail Muraviev, was passed out naked on a whore when representatives of Le Grand Armée arrived in Moscow. Napoleon, being rather disappointed at not receiving a welcome party from the city, had sent his aides in to the city proper to locate the Russian officials with which he wished to make arrangements for occupation. My grandfather knew nothing of this, so when one of Napoleon’s aides, with two rather unpleasant looking guards behind him, kicked my grandfather from his drunken dreams, the reaction was chaotic.

My grandfather, though pushing into his fifties, was quick like a rabbit, and in an instant he was up and strangling the surprised French delegate. The French guardsmen were equally as quick, however, and swiftly convinced my grandfather to cease his assault with the butts of their muskets.

This was September, and my grandfather soon lay naked in the dirt after the Frenchmen dragged him out of the house he was in and into the streets.

He was hit a few more times with boot and musket alike before the aide finally regained his composure and halted the beating.

The Frenchmen backed away but drew their sabers and glared menacingly at my grandfather.

The aide, who never did tell my grandfather his name, spoke first.

“Where are the city officials located?” he asked my grandfather.

My grandfather did not answer him, but lay panting in the snow.

“Where are all the citizens?” the Frenchman asked.

Again, my grandfather stayed silent.

Details differ from one telling to the next, depending on how much my grandfather had to drink when relating this story, but what follows is my favorite version.

According to my grandfather, at that moment a large group of Russian holdovers from the evacuation sauntered up, having recognized him. The two guards immediately began shouting commands to halt at them, but the small mob were intent on seizing my grandfather’s naked body and paid them no heed.

“So, Mikhail,” said the largest of the group. “You think just because my wife is drunk enough to sleep with a dog like you that you can sleep with her and not pay me?”

At this point my grandfather did sit up, and smiling through the blood running down his face he replied, “She got from me what she could never get from you, Nikita. Why should I have to pay for her pleasure?”

My grandfather then spit a wad of phlegm and blood at Nikita’s face, hitting him squarely in the eye.

The French guardsmen stepped between the mob and my grandfather and leveled their swords at Nikita.

“Stop this nonsense,” shouted the aide in broken Russian. “Tell us where your city officials are and we will leave this man to you. Don’t you realize La Grande Armée  has captured Moscow? Where is everyone?”

Nikita spat at the ground and cursed.

“The citizens of Moscow have fled the rising stench of the French,” shouted one of Nikita’s comrades. “There are no officials.”

“Just men, whores, and Mikhail here who is neither,” said Nikita to the Frenchmen. “You and your army go to hell.”

The aide barked something in French at the guards and they tightened their grips on their sabers.

“You will all come with us back to the encampment. You are now prisoners,” he said to the Russians.

“What?” said Nikita, “Three against a mob?”

One of Nikita’s party suddenly drew a pistol from under his coat. Several others of the mob followed suit. Fierce shouting immediately erupted from both sides as they stood off against each other.

From around the corner, several hundred feet down the street, a French patrol numbering ten appeared. Seeing the standoff, the ten Frenchmen raised their muskets and joined the chorus of angry voices.

My grandfather, suddenly not the point of interest, used this moment to surreptitiously crawl back into the house where Nikita’s wife still lay unconscious on the floor.

By the time the first shots rang out, my grandfather was already halfway out the house’s back window while simultaneously attempting to clothe himself. He quickly made his way north out of the city and towards an area full of gullies where he could hide for a while.

While walking through one of these gullies, my grandfather happened upon a cave hidden by rocks and vegetation, presumably a former underground tributary from when the river ran through the area. Leading up to the cave were several long ruts in the dirt, as if something had been dragged into it. Regardless, my grandfather lit a match and entered the cave, hoping to rest for a while.

As soon as he entered, rough hands grabbed him and threw him against the back wall of the cave. Glancing over his shoulder after hitting the wall, my grandfather caught a glimpse of a soldier with a musket leveled at him. The soldier shouted in two languages foreign to Mikhail before speaking Russian.

“Where are you coming from?” the soldier asked.

My grandfather grunted and remained silent, turning back to face the wall.

The soldier whistled a short cadence and a small figure disconnected itself from the shadows and leaped at my grandfather. Mikhail flinched but could not evade the darting shadow. It climbed up to his neck and its teeth bit into his shoulders. My grandfather screamed in pain and fear, not knowing what beast was attacking him.

Another whistled cadence called the beast off, and as it climbed up and sat on the soldier’s shoulder, my grandfather recognized it as a White-Headed Capuchin monkey.

The soldier, who was actually rather cordial after the brusque introduction, revealed to my grandfather that he was a deserter from La Grande Armée and had been hiding in the cave. The soldier’s name Luis Valchanza from Portugal. Luis was pressed into service of Napoleon in exchange for his life, which was scheduled to be extinguished by firing squad for robbery.

Luis had amazingly survived several battles through sheer luck. He had always been positioned at the front line of infantry, usually the expendable bits of Napoleon’s forces. Being so lucky, he had been promoted to commander of the Dead Men Regiment, and had seen hundreds of his charges die beside him. Still, Luis remained without a scratch.

While in Egypt, as part of Napoleon’s military expedition there, Luis first met the monkey who had become his loyal companion. Luis called him Asterix and carried him through several of Napoleon’s European campaigns. Like his master, Asterix amazingly survived every battle though continuously on the frontlines.

My grandfather, having decided that Luis and Asterix were no threat to him, decided to stay in the cave with them until the military presence in the area died down. Luis had brought with him several barrels of  wine by sneaking out of camp each night with one and bring it to the cave. Additionally, Luis had also managed to bring a roll-top desk, one of the first of its kind. This desk was obviously the source of the ruts seen leading into the cave.

My grandfather, curious about the desk’s contents, had tried to open it one night only to find it locked. When he asked Luis about it, Luis would only say that inside was a special gift he had stolen from the French.

Luis and my grandfather lived in the cave for two weeks with Asterix retrieving food from the city and the French encampments for them. On the third week, just after Napoleon had begun his retreat, they heard the march of an approaching patrol early in the morning.

Luis woke first and kicked my grandfather awake.

“They’re Russian,” he told my grandfather. “Do you think they’ll allow me to leave if they find us?”

“They’ll most likely kill you,” my grandfather responded. “You are still a part of Napoleon’s army to them. And what other reason would a man from Portugal have in Russia?”

Luis nodded and pulled out his pistol.

“We remain silent until they pass. Then we break for a new shelter. Agreed?” Luis asked.

My grandfather nodded in agreement.

Just then, as the first advance scout came into view, Asterix burst forth from the cave and rushed the scout. The scout’s horse reared up as the monkey screamed and jumped up and down at its feet.

Once the scout regained control of his horse, he regarded the monkey who was jumping up and down and pointing directly at the cave.

Luis swore under his breath at the betrayal.

The scout called out and several soldiers rode up on horseback. They dismounted and approached the cave with swords and muskets drawn.

Luis swore and pushed my grandfather into one of the corners out of sight.

“They will kill me, but no before I kill one of them. Please take care of Asterix and the desk. Use them for freedom, friend,” Luis told my grandfather, tossing him the keys to the desk. “Farewell.”

Luis rushed out of the cave and fired his pistol at the lead scout before being shot and killed. Asterix screamed, climbed up on his master’s body and began to rifle through his pockets.

The scouts continued forward and entered the cave cautiously.

My grandfather spoke before they saw him, and recognizing a native dialect, the scouts eased up some. My grandfather told them he had been taken captive by Luis and that the desk and monkey were his. The Russian scouts believed him and when the rest of the patrol arrived, they shared the French wine with him and sang Russian songs into the night.

When they left in the morning, they took my grandfather and Asterix with them into the smoldering remains of Moscow. The soldiers helped him find a usable cart and a donkey so he could take the desk wherever it was he was going.

My grandfather departed for St. Petersburg after the soldiers helped him load his desk, leaving all but one barrel of wine with them.

I remember my grandfather’s victorious return home to us. That night was the first of many times I would hear his amazing tale.

As it turns out, one of the soldiers who helped my grandfather was none other than Pavel Pestel, the revolutionary. Pestel came to visit us many times in St. Petersburg after he learned that is where my grandfather lived. My grandfather thought he liked the monkey and that is why he would come visit.

My father, Nikita, ironically named after my grandfather’s longtime friend, became good friends with Pestel before long. They held many of the same views on politics and freedom. I remember sitting around the fire as they would argue with each other over the course the royalists were taking the country. It was the first time I heard words like regicide and revolution and republic, but back then it all seemed just a dream.

Pestel became the figurehead of two groups which were later known as the Decembrists. My father joined him with the southern sect and would take notes on the proceeding of their meetings.

My father continuously pleaded with Pestel to abandon any intention the group may have embraced involving violence, but Pestel was sure that the time for talking had expired. Pestel met with my father one last time in St. Petersburg before leaving the city to meet with the southern sect of Decembrists.

On December 13th, Pestel was arrested along with several other Decembrists, including my father.

I was left in the care of my grandfather, who refused to leave the city after being threatened by parties loyal to Nicholas I.

The Decembrists were tried and convicted. Pestel and four others were sentenced to death by hanging.

The night before Pestel was to be hanged, my grandfather and I visited my father in prison. They talked for a very long time in harsh whispers while I stood by, but finally I was able to speak to my father.

He said to me, “Be brave, Alex. Look after your grandfather, for he is old and forgets this sometimes, thinking he can do the job of a younger man.”

My grandfather grunted at this.

“Will you die?” I asked my father.

“No, little one,” he said to me. “Your father is going to be punished for something he did.”

“Was it bad?” I asked him, tears in my eyes.

“Some people think so. Do you remember when you got in trouble for eating all of the sweetcakes before the rest of the family could have some?” he offered. “It’s like that. It’s called bittersweet, Alex.”

I nodded and said goodbye to my father.

That night I saw my grandfather, with Asterix on his shoulder, soaking several lengths of rope at his roll-top desk for several hours while staring silently at a wooden box I hadn’t ever seen before. I watched him from under my blanket and occasionally he would turn around to see if I was asleep.

About an hour before sunrise, my grandfather gathered up the ropes and placed the wooden box into the roll-top desk before closing it. He and Asterix left and did not come back until close to noon. While he was gone I quietly rose from my bed and went over to the old desk. Try as I might, the desk would not open. My grandfather had locked it.

When my grandfather did come home, he woke me roughly.

“Come, Alex,” he said hoarsely. “We must go. Your father gets out of prison today, and then we are going on an adventure.”

I got dressed and followed my grandfather to the prison where a large group of people had already gathered. I spotted my father in a group of men being guarded next to a gallows with five ropes hanging from the high beam. I watched him intently and occasionally my eyes would turn to the ropes and I wondered if my father would soon be hanging from one.

My grandfather picked me up as the soldiers marched Pestel and four others out and onto the gallows. He pressed my head into his shoulder, not allowing me to watch. Asterix played with my hair as I heard a loud voice echoing through the courtyard.

The voice stopped and I heard the sound of rope twanging followed by the sound of five bodies hitting the ground. I could feel my grandfather chuckling under me and I wondered what was so funny. His grip eased and I turned around to see what had happened. All five ropes had broken and Pestel and the others lay laughing on the ground beneath the gallows.

Several people had begun to laugh in the crowd as well and the soldiers shifted on their feet, not sure what to do. A messenger jumped on horseback to deliver the news to Nicholas I. At that time in Russia, there was a tradition that if a rope broke during an execution then the prisoner it was meant to kill was set free. I could see my father smiling with the other men still being guarded by soldiers as Pestel was lifted from the ground.

Confusion and relief reigned in the courtyard for about an hour before we heard the sound of the messenger returning on horseback. The crowd fell silent as people noticed the messenger carried with him several new lengths of rope. The silence turned to shouts and the crowd began to roar at the outrage, my grandfather’s hoarse voice bringing its harmony to the chorus. More soldiers poured into the courtyard then to quell the near-riot. In a matter of minutes, the new ropes were fitted and Pestel and the others were marched back up the gallows.

This time I watched as the five bodies fell and did not hit the ground.

They released my father that same day and he returned to our house under armed guard. My grandfather had already loaded our small cart with our belongings and the roll-top desk.

We set out immediately followed by the guards until we reached the edge of the city. From there, we set out to the southwest.

“Where are we going, father?” I asked after several hours on the road.

“To Kazakhstan,” he said quietly. “To our new home.”

My grandfather grunted at this and spit off the side of the cart.

The rest of the Decembrists not executed were exiled across the continent to rebuild their lives as nomads, never again to see the great cities of their homeland.

Our journey took several weeks and the going was tough, but finally we reached a Russian outpost at the edge of Kazakhstan. The soldiers there looked at my father’s papers and directed him to the encampments of one of the local Kazakh tribes.

The Kazakh tribe welcomed us and I was soon educated in their language and customs. I was ten years old by then and I spent most of the daylight hours out on the steppes bundled in furs, keeping watch over livestock. My father likewise took to his new life quickly, and only my grandfather seemed unable to fit in. He spent most of his time drinking what vodka he could get his hands on and the rest of the time constructing a barrel organ which he told my father and I would bring us freedom.

We retained our cart, but most of our goods were distributed amongst the tribe and my father’s request. My grandfather defended his precious desk and was allowed to keep it, though it presented a huge debacle every time the tribe had to move. The Kazakhs finally grew to like us though, as they soon made a game of moving the desk. We were forced to destroy the cart one cold night for fuel, and several of the tribesmen carved out some long poles and attached rings to the front and the back of the desk. This way they could run the poles through the rings and carry the desk easier. The sight of this was ridiculous as we trekked across the steppes. My grandfather would sit atop his donkey and sing Russian songs while four Kazakhs carried his precious desk like the fabled Ark of the Covenant behind him.

Our life was hard but simple for a few years, but we grew accustomed to it. My father stopped speaking of politics and became one with the tribe, helping them with his knowledge of the modern world.

It wasn’t long, however, before the Russians began to make our lives difficult.

Several more Russian outposts had been built in the area our tribe would occasionally camp in, and more often the tribe was run out of prime grazing land at the business end of a musket. This seemed to upset my grandfather most and he would straighten up on his donkey and throw curses at the Russians in their own language like Moses. He stopped this after the one time the soldiers threatened to take his desk.

To that day neither my father nor I had ever figured out what it was that he kept hidden in that old roll-top desk. The dirty thing had survived hundreds of miles of travel and looked ready to fall apart, but it outlasted my grandfather and my father both.

Things got worse the next year as we were following the herds into new land. The Russians appeared and turned us away, only this time they took three quarters of our stock. All they gave us in return was a crate full of vodka. The tribesmen lowered their heads and turned away but my grandfather stared quietly over the top of his donkey and raised his hand to the soldiers.

He shouted to them, “Freedom will come! It will come and destroy you on the wings of your funeral music!”

Even my father chuckled at this and turned my grandfather’s donkey away from the soldiers. I never saw my grandfather smile after that.

We began to starve after that. We met another tribe who was willing to help us, but they could offer little lest they themselves starve.

My grandfather had finished his barrel organ and had begun to teach Asterix to dance to its music while carrying a small tin cup.

I enjoyed these little shows, but it seemed very sad to see my grandfather’s stern face as he turned the crank. Never once did his expression change. He seemed lost in his thoughts continuously.

We survived that year, surprisingly, losing only a couple of tribesmen to disease along the way. My grandfather began to play grind his organ for the other tribes we would meet and would earn bottles of vodka for his new trade. Several times I would even see him tip his bottle to Asterix’s tin cup, and it wasn’t long before Asterix was a drunk just like my grandfather.

Once again, our tribe came perilously close to a Russian outpost following our herds, and once again we saw dust rising from the horizon as soldiers rode towards us.

This time they took all of our livestock and several of the women. They gave us nothing in return.

My grandfather was silent atop his donkey and only stared forward silently, seeming not to even recognize what had happened.

That night the tribe camped on a hillside opposite the direction of the outpost. I couldn’t sleep and my father drank heavily from my grandfather’s vodka stash. It was barely after dark before he was passed out in our tent.

My grandfather stayed awake and I watched him from the folds of the tent. Asterix sat on his shoulder as he bent carefully over his barrel organ and the desk which he had opened. Two hours passed and finally my grandfather rose from his work, pulling the barrel organ’s straps over his shoulders.

I rose from my bedding and ran out to him.

“Where are you going, grandfather?” I asked him.

He looked down at me and did not smile. His breath reeked of vodka and made me nauseous.

“I’m going to play a song for the Russians, Alex. Maybe they will pay me in Vodka and give us some of our herd back,” he said hoarsely. He patted my shoulder and nudged me back to the tent. “Goodnight, Alex. Take care of your father.”

I watched him leave and as I was turning back to the tent, my eyes fell on the roll-top desk and the open top. I looked quickly around to see if anyone was watching, but most of the tribe was gathered around the fires and could not see me.

Cautiously I rolled the top completely open.

The desk was empty except for the wooden box I had seen before.

I carefully opened the box and inside I found nothing but a dark residue, a black powder with a pungent aroma like the smell of a musket or matches.

Curiosity got the best of me and I retrieved my shoes from the tent and set out after my grandfather.

It took me ten minutes to catch him, he was moving faster than normal and whistling a tune I remember from the funeral of Alexander I, just before the Decembrist revolt.

When my grandfather reached the outpost, he was met by soldiers armed with muskets. A few words were spoken and the soldiers began to laugh as they ushered my grandfather into the courtyard of the outpost.

I stealthily darted around to a copse of trees near one of the side walls, and using several cartons stacked along the wall, I climbed over the wall and dropped down into the outpost in the shadow of one of the supply tents inside.

My grandfather stood in the center of the courtyard and the entire regiment assigned to the outpost soon encircled him.

The barrel organ began to play its lilting, intoxicating music and the soldiers cheered as Asterix began his dance to entertain them.

The song went on for several minutes and I recognized it was about to end.

Just then my grandfather shouted, “Long live the free!”

The soldiers looked around at each other as the final notes played.

Several of them rushed my grandfather as he finished his song.

Just as the final note played, the courtyard exploded.

The blast threw flesh, bone, and wood in a huge circle. A piece of destroyed musket hit me in the side and I was thrown against the wall of the outpost. The metal of the musket tore a gash in my side, and as I gasped for breath I could feel warmth spreading over me.

The tents caught on fire quickly and the surviving soldiers attempted to contain the fire while running through the remains of their comrades. A soldier found me and carried me outside where I watched the outpost burn to the ground.

The explosion destroyed the small enclosure the soldiers were using to hold our livestock and our entire herd fled the area back over the hill where the tribe was encamped.

I remember a medical officer bandaging me and propping me against a tree where I soon passed out.

My father later told me that several members of the tribe, including himself, came over the hill to investigate. That is when he found me and a soldier told him that it was my grandfather who had caused the explosion.

The tribesmen were allowed to keep their herd and we were allowed to leave.

I woke up the next day crying, knowing my grandfather was dead and that I would never hear of his adventures again. I told my father as much as he comforted me and what he said stuck with me even as I spoke in dark rooms to other revolutionaries in my adulthood.

My father said, “Never forget, Alex. What your grandfather did today was his greatest adventure. The greatest adventure is always the pursuit of freedom and justice.”

Now, in my old age, I tell the story of my grandfather, the desk, and the monkey. I see my audience smile, and in their smiles I see my grandfather and my father smiling.

Freedom will come soon, I tell my fellow revolutionaries.

And justice as swiftly.

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